Why We Still Need Real Social Media Strategists


by Shannon Paul on October 10, 2010

Even though business strategies come from the top down in organizations we still need strategists, or at least strategic thinkers, in every area of business, but especially social media. Not only because so few businesses have direct experience with social media used to deliver on business goals, but because it requires a fundamental shift that the same old evolutionary approaches fail to address.

Whether anyone likes it or not, the deliverables in a social business are almost always a matter of fulfillment, not department. I mean this in the sense of the traditional departmental silos found in most companies inhibit the ability to work cross-functionally.

Bottom line: fasten your seat belts. .

Viva La Revolution

The word strategist gets a lot of flack, and for good reason. It seems like everyone and her brother are claiming expertise in this emerging field with respect to everything from digital marketing to content development to social media communications.

No doubt many are far less than expert in any digital discipline or even fundamental business practices, but that doesn’t change the fact that you still need a strategy.

However, frustration over how people use any particular word doesn’t diminish the importance for strategic thinking and strategic communication in any successful integration of social media tools and communication into existing business processes. Fakers, posers and resume-inflaters exist in every field

The real role of a strategist: organizational alignment

The word strategy is still one of the most misunderstood concepts in business. When delivering on any big strategic goal, it’s important for internal subject matter experts or agency partners to provide translation between the big goal and the nuances required to succeed in the particular channel (in my case, social media channel/s).

Two necessary ingredients for strategic alignment:

  1. Context – Your role as a strategist is to provide enough context for leaders in your organization to understand your creative choices with respect to your discipline and to trust that they are indeed aligned with their big strategy. I often use the example of traditional broadcast TV advertising: the person in charge of selecting a particular advertising strategy or creative direction should be able to explain their decisions in terms of effectiveness with respect to the particular medium AND connect the dots between their decisions and the overall business strategies at work in any given campaign. One might also argue empathy as a prerequisite for an ability to provide context, but I will save that for another post.
  1. 360 Degree Reinforcement – Organizational alignment rarely happens overnight in any company larger than just a handful of people. Even then, other cultural constraints may inhibit whether your message is received, understood or respected.

The first obvious reason for the need for strategic communication is to help translate the BIG corporate goals down to the day-to-day activity (tactics). However, the often overlooked role of a strategist isn’t focused on top-down communication, but rather on the opposite.

People don’t like change / People change every day

In my mind this aligns well with the concepts addressed in one of my favorite books on change management, Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. If we want to help an organization change in order to adapt social technology into their current business operations, we need to make our communication incredibly crisp; crisp enough to cut to the front of the line in a growing list of known priorities. Then we need to prescribe the tweaks in day-to-day conversations and operations to get the most leverage the fastest. From there it’s all about communication, iteration and continuous improvement all while you’re still handling the day-to-day stuff of social media.

Nobody else is interested in learning our acronyms

Every function in a company has plenty of technical jargon to go along with what they do. For most people who live blissfully outside the social media echo chamber, there is a huge learning curve associated with shortened URLs, APIs, FBML, RSS, PHP, hashtags, embed codes, and any number of apps or sites you use on a daily basis. The reason may have a job or a client probably rests with the idea that you can understand much of this so they don’t have to.

If you spend time in meetings with executive decision-makers hashing over tactical details you will earn a reputation for wasting others’ time. Unless, of course those meetings are about reinforcing skills with those on the front lines.

Strategic communication makes all the difference

In the end, it doesn’t matter how talented you are, or how much you know if you can’t connect the dots for others between what you do and what they do, or between what you know and what they would like to do.

Photo Credit: Phil Romans

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

October 10, 2010 Adam Singer 1

Nice post Shannon, agreed. More importantly – that is a picture of the game Stratego above in the post image above. Didn’t realize you were a player – I’d challenge you to a game sometime :)


October 10, 2010 Shannon Paul 2

Thanks, Adam. Yes, that’s a picture of Stratego! I might have to brush up on the rules prior to accepting your challenge – it’s been a very, very, very long time.


October 10, 2010 Ivan Walsh 3

Hi Shannon,

You kind of beat me to it…
Empathy is where things make or break.
Most strategists/consultants etc don’t grasp the underlying problem facing the org that needs to embrace social media.
Until you can put yourself in their shoes, explains ‘relationship status’ and sm ecosystems is not going to work.
The people who read this blog, and seth, and chris b etc are mostly power users.
But the folks you’re dealing with… some haven’t embraced email yet. Yes, they’ve scratched the surface but that’s it.
You really need to walk a mile in their shoes before you see things from their perspective.
and then it’s easy. ok. easier.



October 11, 2010 Social Steve 4


Social Steve


October 11, 2010 Davina K. Brewer 5

Shannon, Gotta agree with you and Ivan on the empathy; walking a mile, seeing things from the other side is key. It’s showing each side how they connect, putting the tactics and metrics in context of how it impacts the overall plan. Not all “experts” have that ability to 1) play the it through to the end, look ahead see how step 1 will drive step 7 and 2) knowing the planned ending, work backwards to keep steps on track per overall business goals. This is why I think we will ALWAYS need real social media strategists, FWIW.


October 11, 2010 Rosemary ONeill 6

I think there is often a knee-jerk reaction against anyone who does “strategy” for a living, because it’s not tangible. You are absolutely right that it is incumbent on the strategist to ensure that what they’re doing is aligned with the goals of the organization and demonstrates its own value. Then, hopefully the results WILL be tangible.


October 11, 2010 randyclark 7

Is social media inherently a silo buster? I had not considered this, however I have, in retrospect, been forced to work around – over – under the silos. If an SM strategy is to be successful it must tear down interdepartmental barriers. Thank you for the insight and now I will look for every opportunity to tear down those walls.


October 12, 2010 Dean Holmes 8

Great post/great work.

No doubt we get beat up for even mentioning strategy sometimes, especially outside of board rooms. Fact is that most companies, especially those in struggling industries, fail to focus on strategies that are outside of the core business model.
I reference 3 books by Chris Zook, from Harvard Publishing, Crisis at the Core, Beyond the Core and Profit from the Core as at the very least what leaders of many organizations should read.
This type of thought behind DeBeers for instance, crafted strategies that most stock markets would kill for in forward looking statements.
We also owe it to ourselves to always think different as consultants. Always. It’s why companies hire us, it’s why they need us and it’s certainly how we grow together as a group.
The fact is, I learn everyday. Not by ripping off ideas from those who have “walked the miles” but from taking key learnings of how they think, what it took to come up with this ability to see something so simple everyone else missed. Those are the moments I am proud of.


October 12, 2010 Nikki Stephan 9

You are so smart. :)

Your last paragraph is what really hits home with me. As always, thanks for your valuable insight.

- Nikki


October 18, 2010 Shannon Paul 10

Thanks, Nikki – I value your opinion, so thanks for the kind words :)


October 17, 2010 Karen Swim 11

Shannon, excellent assessment of the importance of strategic thinking for all business leaders. We should not allow semantics to detract from the need to not operate in a silo. I have often said that I am fond of the “big picture of the small details,” or simply put not just he big picture strategy but how it ripples through and impacts individuals in a corporation. This is what gets me the most excited connecting the dots for all and creating true connectedness internally and externally.


October 18, 2010 Shannon Paul 12

Hi Karen,
Seeing your comment come through made my day! Forming connections is powerful stuff — gets me excited, too :)


October 22, 2010 Nick Stamoulis 13

Strategy is very important in the execution of Social Media in order for it be any sort of a success. If you don’t have a well drawn out strategy, something you can follow your social media efforts will have a disconnect and won’t work.


October 26, 2010 steveolenski 14

Completely agree with Ivan…

The people you deal with and I deal with often times don’t even embrace such obvious things as email (yes email) let alone social media, which they’ve “heard of…”

Its vital to know the other side if you will, and if you can… sometimes you cant know the other side for a myriad of reasons but unfortunately its still our job to put the pieces together…


November 1, 2010 Shallie Bey 15

Thank you for a wonderful article that makes the point for strategists in general and social media strategists in particular. It is unfortunately far to common for people to discount strategy as not being relevant or useful because they do not understand what it is. If people grasp the point that you make about alignment, there would be far fewer failures in business.

Shallie Bey
Smarter Small Business Blog


November 1, 2010 Shannon Paul 16

Thank you, Shallie. I agree — alignment really is key. The more I learn about business, the more I understand this to be true.


November 1, 2010 Pradeep - Site Optimizer 17

“If we want to help an organization change in order to adapt social technology into their current business operations” – You didn’t explain if they had convinced to adopt social media or not. ;) However, either they accepted or not, if someone else have the same situation, your suggestion on: clearly define goals, priorities, other mechanics are simply real strategies that will work out.


November 1, 2010 Shannon Paul 18


That was only half a thought. The full sentence reads, “If we want to help an organization change in order to adapt social technology into their current business operations, we need to make our communication incredibly crisp; crisp enough to cut to the front of the line in a growing list of known priorities.”

Same holds true for anyone who wants to sell the idea of integrating social media in the first place — your communication needs to be crisp and you need to have a very clear and articulate vision of what you’re actually trying to get permission to do.


November 1, 2010 Pradeep - Site Optimizer 19

I know its half, merely an example also not the entire concept of the post but just tried to made something different. By the way, I have just had a glance at the post and noticed you forget to write the letter ’2′ when referring at ‘Two necessary ingredients for strategic alignment:’. May be you should consider editing it. :)


November 2, 2010 Lucas 20

First time visitor to your blog. Fist post I’ve read….and won’t be last !! Completly agree with what you say. Strategy is vital to any organization entering the Social Media arena. Without it, I think what companies do are merely promotional activities on a different channel, but not Social Media (wich I think should be understood as an attitude, rather than a channel, and most companies – at least in Spain – are miles away from that…)
PS.- You have another subscriber… ;)


November 9, 2010 Rich Harris 21

What a great post…I think companies, especially large ones, get caught up so much in social media projects and deliverables that the minutiae can fizzle out the strategy. A thoughtful ‘pumping of the breaks’ sometimes to fine-tune strategy is more important than just ‘getting the job done’…..


November 15, 2010 dreambox 800 22

There are too many so-called experts tell people what to do and what not to do as if everything is in black and white. The reality is that we are still in the Wild West in this new media..


November 17, 2010 Umidificador 23

Social media strategies should be developed in a silo. I think they should be seen as opportunities to reinvent the way you do business.


November 18, 2010 Lynda Thain 24

Ooh, Shannon, I do like a blog post that makes me think – so thank you for this one! There are many really interesting additional comments which made me want to add my two cents (or pence) worth; one of which is that, arguably, without empathy there would be no alignment.

Picking up on Ivan’s, Davina’s and Shallie’s points, being able to stand in another’s shoes is essential to implementing a successful strategy, because without it alignment is extremely unlikely.

I would think one of the greatest challenges for the consultant is to understand the implicit as well as the explicit (and let’s not even get onto the subject of what’s within or outside the scope of the brief). To really get into another’s shoes requires excellent active listening skills…. bringing us back to empathy and eventually, with hard work, determination, and plenty of good will, to alignment:-)



P.S. Another first time visitor… and a new subscriber.


November 24, 2010 Oliver Holtaway 25

Hi –

Came to this late via another article, really glad I found it. So much of the social PR blogosphere seems to focus on the cool things we *could* do- that’s fine, but it’s great to get really practical advice on dealing with real-life client constraints.



{ 5 trackbacks }

  • Articles I Found Interesting – October 11, 2010
  • Why We Still Need Real Social Media Strategists « Socialmediamaniac247's Blog October 26, 2010
  • Strategy vs. Deliverables, Round 1 - Fight! | ZDNet November 15, 2010
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  • Rethinking Social Strategy | THE SOCIAL CMO Blog December 19, 2010

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